At 31 years of age, Serena Williams’ intensity never fails to astonish.
The winner of 15 Grand Slam singles titles in a professional career spanning 17 years (and counting), Williams could be forgiven for deciding to hang up the racquets with her lofty place among tennis and sporting history very much secure.
But that’s not going to happen.
Serena is in the midst of one of the richest veins of form in her stellar career. She currently owns a 16-match winning streak – dating back to the 2012 US Open and most recently including her run to the title last week in Brisbane – and has won 35 of her past 36 matches.
Her career path is resembling that of an Andre Agassi, who like a fine wine continued to improve with age. The American legend peaked in his early 30s, and Williams, similarly a legend from the United States, is doing much the same.
Although she’s at No.3 on the WTA rankings, there’s no questioning she’s far and away the best female player on the planet right now. And she seems to be enjoying herself more than ever before on the court, a picture of calm, balance and focus not normally associated with the sometimes combustible and always flamboyant Williams.
That focus was on display at Melbourne Park today, with Williams engaging in an intense practice session on an outer court. Coach Patrick Mouratoglou and long-time hitting partner Sascha Bajin were camped at the net, both of whom Williams ferociously pelted with balls and accompanied those bombs with her trademark grunt. On more than one occasion, she forced them to duck for cover.
The drills seemed designed to get Serena on her toes and responding quickly – both men fed balls in rapid-fire style from short distance at the net, giving Williams little time to react and having to focus extremely hard on her footwork and quick, compact racquet preparation.
She handled it with aplomb.
Just five minutes watching Serena in action in the intense Melbourne heat showed that her rivals have plenty to fear when they arrive for the Australian Open, beginning a week from today.
A free-swinging and rapidly-emerging Sloane Stephens and a fitter Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova were both unable to even dent in Serena’s armour in her final two matches in Brisbane, and that was a mere tune-up event – we all know Williams saves her best for the majors.
And there’s plenty to motivate her as she goes for her sixth title at Melbourne Park, principally the chance to atone for her disappointing and uncharacteristic fourth round loss to Ekaterina Makarova at last year’s event.
Another Australian Open crown would return Williams to world No.1, set her up for a very-achievable calendar-year Grand Slam, and put her just two major titles short of the great Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who both own 18 Grand Slam singles titles.
It’s going to take a fine performance from a worthy opponent to stop her.